Who Gets Legal Abortions in America? Mothers.

Almost 60 percent of women who have abortions are already mothers.

black and white photo of a toddler sitting in his mother's lap

Sarah and her husband considered an abortion when she found out she was pregnant with her second child. “When we had my son, it was wonderful and great, but also really hard,” she says. “We talked about having a second kid, but we put it on pause, because there was a lot going on. Then I got pregnant…. My husband really wanted to consider termination. He didn’t think we were ready. I knew I wanted that baby, but I also knew that my family unit was the most important thing to me. If he truly was not ready, and if this was going to cost us our marriage, or, put us into a situation that was going to be devastating for the family, I would have done it.”

Had Sarah had the abortion, she would have been among the 59 percent of American women receiving abortions who are already mothers. More specifically, she’d be joining the 26 percent of American women receiving abortion who already have one child — 33 percent have two or more.

Those statistics, which Sarah did not know at the time, come from the Guttmacher Institute, where Dr. Rachel K. Jones has researched abortion for two decades and discovered that, counter to common political and dramatic narratives, many if not most American women receiving abortions do so for reasons related to the wellbeing — often financial — of the children they already have.

It seems that, more than ever, red states are determined to limit the autonomy women have over their own bodies when it comes to their medical care. Texas and Georgia are among the states that have passed ‘heartbeat’ ban bills that ban abortions at six weeks of pregnancy, which is about two weeks after a missed period, long before most women even think they could be pregnant. Georgia’s bill, which was struck down as unconstitutional last year, also stipulated legal punishments for women who traveled outside of the state to obtain basic medical care and people who help them travel as co-conspirators in murder. The only exception that would allow women to obtain abortion in the state, which is a federally mandated law, would be in the case of rape or incest. It also criminalized women for having miscarriages if it can be determined if it is ‘their fault.’ It’s worth noting that medication abortion and miscarriage are not medically discernible from one another, and that criminalizing someone for having a miscarriage would not be a reliable determination.

This week, Texas passed Senate Bill 8 effectively outlawing abortion in the state and deputizing private citizens to enforce the new law. The Supreme Court has so far failed to intervene, potentially dealing a fatal blow to Roe v. Wade. Alabama passed an anti-abortion bill in Mid-May that would criminalize all abortions, even in the case of rape and incest, and would imprison all doctors who perform abortions for 99 years. Ohio passed another version of the heartbeat bill, which would ban all abortions two weeks after a missed period, and provides no exceptions in the case of rape or incest. More than 4,000 women in Ohio were raped in the year of 2017 alone. Other states have followed suit with similar legislation: Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, Arkansas, South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Tennessee have passed heartbeat bans, bans earlier than 24 weeks, or similar and even passed trigger laws that would immediately outlaw abortion should Roe v. Wade be overturned. Which is, of course, the logical endpoint of all of these bills. On their face, they violate Roe v. Wade, and should these laws and the legal fight that will surely surround them get all the way to the Supreme Court, women may no longer have the right to choose.

Many will characterize the debate as pro-choice vs. pro-family, but that dichotomy in nonsensical when considered in the light of fact. Choices occur in the context of families. And the data is very clear: The more choices a family has, the better the outcome for that family is likely to be. This truth will not sway those who believe abortion to be murder, but it should help those who do not to understand that the debate about abortion rights is not about choices versus family, but about religious belief versus social wellbeing.

There is, it seems, a reason that abortion is such a sticky policy area for Americans. The reality of how these choices are made in America is not genuinely reflected in the judicial and legislative debate on the topic.

An ongoing study by Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, a collaborative research group that focuses on the role that structural inequity plays in reproductive lives, has coded the dramatizations of abortion in TV shows and movies and found that the characters who consider abortions in popular entertainment are largely white, wealthy young women. On television, 32.5 percent of women who obtain abortions were below 20 even though less than 12 percent of women in real life who receive abortions are under 20. On television, a whopping (or not-whopping) zero percent of women considering abortions already had kids and 90 percent of characters getting abortions were white. Forty-five percent of those were college graduates and 50 percent had their high school degrees.

In reality, the majority of women who obtain abortions have graduated high school. And there is no white monopoly on abortion. Researchers do not know if white people receive abortions at a higher rate. Also, in reality, a statistical 0 percent of abortions that are legal end in death. That’s not true onscreen.

The reasons onscreen for abortions also did not match the reality of why many women choose to terminate their pregnancies. Most of the reasons that TV characters get abortions — that it interferes with their future opportunities, or they’re not mature enough, or that the pregnancy was a result of rape — do not even hit the top 3 reasons why women in real life get abortions. On television, half of women get abortions when it interferes with their opportunities. Meanwhile, 40 percent of women in real life get abortions because they are not financially prepared to raise children.

The depiction of abortion as a young, wealthy women’s concern (and one that is dangerous) flies in the face of the reality of abortion, in which most women who seek abortion care are already parents, and 75 percent of women who obtain abortions already have incomes less than 200 percent of the federal policy level. “When you put all these facts together, it suggests that there are a lot of women who are struggling to take care of the children that they do have. And so this is just the best choice for them at that particular moment of time,” says Dr. Jones.

In fact, the common depiction of abortion in fictional media, and the way it’s politicized in political and news media, often obscures the reality of the decision: That for most women, it’s a decision made in the larger context of already raising a family. After those women consider the financial constraints they are already experiencing, those women often discuss the issue with their partner before deciding to go forward with the abortion. Besides the fact that it’s a personal decision, being able to plan when and how children come into the picture for families is deeply associated with better outcomes on a physical and socioeconomic health standpoint.

“The narrative that these are young women who are irresponsible is convenient, because it distracts people from the reality that women can get pregnant in all different sorts of scenarios. I wish that people would stop trying to make it about bad decision-making,” Sarah* says. 25 percent of women will have one before they turn 45.

Dr. Katie Davis, a licensed clinical psychologist, agrees. She also believes that the more information and choices teens, teen moms, and adult women who are parents have about children, the better for everyone.

“Having kids is a really time consuming and expensive endeavor. It’s best if women, and families in general, are able to plan effectively for when they’re going to bring a child in this world or decide to care for a child, even if they didn’t give birth to the child. People need to have their families structured. The more choice we provide people, and the more agency they have in their planning and decision making, the better the outcomes for everybody,” says Dr. Davis.

But instead of painting the picture of abortion as a function of family planning, it’s more dramatic and compelling for both sitcom writers and politicians on the right to portray choice as a product of recklessness. In 2017, when Oklahoma was considering a bill that would require women to receive the written consent of the father of the fetus in order to have an abortion, state representative Jim Humphrey said, “I believe one of the breakdowns in our society is that we have excluded the man out of all of these types of decisions. I understand that [women] feel like that is their body. What I call them is… a ‘host.’ And you know when you enter into a relationship, you’re going to be that host… Your body is your body and be responsible with it. But after you’re irresponsible then don’t claim, well, I can just go and do this with another body, when you’re the host and you invited that in.”

Making pregnancy sound like an Alien-like affliction aside, not only are there laws that would require consent from potentially uninvolved partners in order to get an abortion, there are also laws that require teens rely on their parents for decisions about their own bodies. Parental consent laws, which exist in over 40 states, require minors who get pregnant to have parental consent or notification before they can attain an abortion. That type of hurdle will assure that some young teens will not seek abortion, whether it be from fear of abuse or fear that they will be forced to carry their child to term. And any type of parental consent law can make it harder for teens to access the biggest deterrent of teen pregnancy: readily available birth control.

And like most women who are turned away from receiving abortion care, teens have it particularly rough, particularly in terms of socioeconomic opportunity later in life. So do their kids.

“Teenage girls that become mothers are more likely to drop out of school. And if they have a kid, they have to struggle to find a well-paying job,” says Dr. Davis. “Their children are at risk for negative health and social outcomes similar to their mother. The children of teen mothers don’t perform as well as children of older mothers on measures of cognitive development, school readiness, language and communication, and interpersonal skills.”

Daughters born to teen mothers are three times more likely than their peers to become teen parents themselves.

“I will never forget sitting on the kitchen floor. We just sat down on the floor. And I do remember feeling grateful that I had the option to even think about having an abortion. Had we not even discussed that — if it had just been, ‘this is what it is,’ — we might not have taken the beat to actually talk through it. To go get some counselor support. And as it turns out, our daughter is incredible and amazing. We know she was the right person to come into our lives,” says Sarah*.

A longitudinal study on women who were turned away from abortion services by ANSIRH found that the long-term socioeconomic effects of an unplanned pregnancy are tremendous. Women who are denied access to abortion as a family planning method are four times as likely to have their incomes fall below the federal poverty level. And make no mistake about it, poverty, which affects about 10 percent of children in the United States, has long-lasting effects on a child’s wellbeing.

They’re less likely to graduate college by the age 25, and only 64 percent of kids who live in consistent poverty end up graduating high school, which perpetuates the cycle. They are also more likely to have a non-marital teen birth and become incarcerated at some point in their lives. Children who live in poverty are more likely to live in unsafe homes, have asthma, deal with pests, and live in polluted environments. They are more likely to experience psychological distress as a result of their childhood struggle. Poverty affects kids. And if parents can avoid falling into poverty by having fewer children, their children will be far better off for it.

Whether or not Roe v. Wade is overturned, abortion has become increasingly difficult to access in Midwestern and Southern states. This affects many women who may not even realize they are pregnant until it is too late to effectively plan their families. Simply told, women and families forced to carry pregnancies to term may suffer enormous financial consequences. In turn, so will their families.

“I also don’t think about that decision and think that if we had made that choice [to terminate my second pregnancy], it would be devastating to our lives. We made the choice that was the right choice for us. Had we made that choice, we wouldn’t even know, right? I guess I feel like abortion is a healthcare option. That choice gave me everything I have. That’s what family planning is, right? That’s what making choices is all about: trying to create the most healthy family you can,” says Sarah.*